Kerryn Goldsworthy responds to Gillian Whitlock

© all rights reserved

I was startled by Professor Gillian Whitlock’s reading of my essay ‘After the Academy’ (Australian Book Review, June/July 2002). She appears to think that my choice of ‘romantic’, ‘organic’ tropes and of such generally non-U discourses as ‘settler autobiographics’ was unwitting, and that I had somehow managed to get through seventeen years as a full time academic without achieving self-awareness in my own writing practice, and without being so much as touched by the ideas or the language by which I was surrounded.

I had and still do have a sufficiently high opinion of ABR readers to assume they understood that the language and metaphors used in the essay were carefully chosen and were part of the point of what I was saying. Since Professor Whitlock and I worked in the same field for many years and have been exposed to each other’s work on a regular basis, I can only assume that her misrepresentation of the piece – as some sort of soppy and reactionary lament for an imaginary golden age of individualism and ‘creativity’-worship – was a wilful one, for reasons of which I have no knowledge and in which I have no interest.

If one is to avoid grounding one’s arguments in false assumptions, any study of autobiographics requires some basic research into the genesis of the texts. The essay was written because I was asked to write it; and at my own request the editor of ABR, Peter Rose, gave me quite a detailed brief. Had he commissioned a piece about ‘figuring the self as an academic’, I would have written one of those. It would have been very different. I make no apology for writing at my editor’s request about my own experience, though Professor Whitlock appears to think I should; is this not rather an odd position for a person whose work is in the field of autobiographics?

There is, of course, no such thing as ME (I take it this was a laboured pun on campus-specific essentialist crimes; if not, it is now), and if Professor Whitlock claims to have no heart or soul then who am I to argue? As far as the development of the academic self over time is concerned, there can be no clear distinction between the ‘sandstones’ and the ‘gumleaves’, for most of us are the hybrid offspring of both, or perhaps I should say that our selves are constructed on the site where the various discourses circulating around both intersect. Professor Whitlock, apparently missing the point that my image of the happy cow in the field of literature was intended to be a self-mocking one, accuses me of hankering after some long-vanished and scorned ideal of literary academe that I had, she implies, been educated by the so-called sandstones to expect. Actually, I spent my first year as an academic working on those very ‘excellent Deakin materials’ she praises, at a time when the Waurn Ponds campus, still under construction, offered only such gumleaves as the sad little windblown saplings could provide.

As far as the Melbourne University English Department is concerned, my experience has been the same as that of every other academic – indeed, every other employee – I know: one’s experience of a department depends very much on who is in charge, which (and how many) bits of the available work they make one do, whether one’s contributions are valued by them, how they deal (or fail to deal) with problems, and whether their management allows a measure of academic and/or intellectual freedom. During the three years of Stephen Knight’s headship in that department, it was almost universally regarded as a happy, stimulating, demanding and exciting place to work, thanks mainly to Professor Knight’s inclusive, not to say inspired, leadership style. (Among other things he did a great deal to improve the department’s gender profile, which should give some idea of what it was like before.) And in its current incarnation, being run by people like Ken Gelder, Peter Otto and Stephanie Trigg, it’s a place to which I would be happy to go back, if I could put up with the workplace conditions or the weather.

But ‘After the Academy’ (the title, which I chose hastily and badly, is misleading) was not about the Melbourne University English Department, which it mentions only briefly. It was about an overdetermined mid-life crisis, and I did my best to make it something in which readers both academic and otherwise might see reflected some of their own dilemmas.

Kerryn Goldsworthy, Writer, Adelaide, South Australia

Read Gillian Whitlock’s Leaving “ME”

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email [email protected]